Brussels Makes an Extreme Plan to Fight Pollution Emergencies

In Brussels’s fight against extreme pollution, the city is taking some of the most radical action plotted by a Western capital so far. After a slate of drastic new measures were approved this month, the city’s plan to fight especially poor air quality includes some standard fare, like temporarily making public transit free, but also some last-resort measures that could effectively place the city on lockdown when the air gets especially dangerous.

The moves agreed by the Belgian Capital Region are as follows. If levels of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere stay high (above 50 micrograms per cubic meter) for over 48 hours, the city will make all public transit and bikesharing free. Speed limits would be slashed, and wood burning for any home that possesses an alternative heat source would be banned.

These moves are decisive, but not unprecedented—Paris and Madrid have similar emergency measures in their arsenal. But Brussels would be prepared to go much further. If pollution peaks persisted or worsened, the heating of office buildings would be banned, a ruling that could be followed by the ultimate measure of a complete ban on all non-electric, non-emergency vehicles circulating. If the city pulled out all these stops, it could effectively grind to a halt.

These measures are only planned to target true emergencies, not ongoing problems. The regional environmental agency recommends that particulate levels remain below 20 micrograms per cubic meter, meaning pollution would have to reach two and a half times the level the agency deems desirable before emergency measures kick in.

They are, however, only the most striking of a general push to wean the city of its car dependency. On January 1, the capital region introduced a Low Emissions Zone that covers the entire capital region minus the ring road. This zone effectively bans the most polluting diesel vehicles (those with emissions at Euro 1 standard, built before 1997, or no standard at all). Owners of these vehicles can drive into the city on a maximum of 8 days annually, but only by purchasing a €35 ($43) daily pass that renders them prohibitively expensive. Each year, the Low Emission Zone’s restrictions will tighten. By 2025, only drivers of the cleanest category of diesel car, and the four cleanest categories of gas-powered cars will be allowed in.

This staggered implementation means Brussels will have to wait a long time for air quality improvements—there aren’t that many diesel vehicles built before 1997 on the road—but at least it’s moving in the right direction. With a congestion charge also being considered, Brussels’s Mobility Minister Pascal Smet has made it clear that the moves are purposefully intended to dissuade people from driving. “If you drive less than 10,000 km per year, it’s not worth buying and owning a car and you are better off sharing it with others,” he told the Brussels Times. “On average, cars are parked 95 percent of the time in Brussels.”

There’s a decisiveness to Brussels’s push for cleaner air that, at least seen from afar, is impressive. The problems they are designed to alleviate, however, are grave, and some form of action is desperately needed. The city’s air quality is appalling—the worst of any Western European capital, and comfortably surpassing larger cities such as London, Paris, and Rome in its high levels of carcinogenic particulates. The source of these problems is not hard to find. Diesel fuel has long dominated Belgium’s vehicle fleet, falling from a remarkable 78.9 percent of all cars to a still huge 51.8 percent share in 2017. It is only this week that diesel prices have in some places climbed above gas prices, finally removing the fiscal incentive for generally more polluting cars.

But diesel use isn’t the only culprit. By European standards, Brussels remains a very car-reliant city, with over 50 percent of commuters using cars for at least part of their journey—almost double the rate in Paris—partly because public transit coverage in the outskirts is patchy. The city’s bike lane network is reasonably good, but cycling and walking rates are still low: Just 6 percent of all journeys take place by bike or on foot. The result of all this is legendary traffic jams that pump the city full of harmful pollutants.

There’s been public pressure on the state to change the situation for some time. In November, a coalition of 100 doctors highlighted the city’s pollution problem in an open letter, noting that poor air quality killed an estimated 632 people prematurely across Belgium every year. The city’s residents have been getting restive, too. Earlier this month, a demonstration saw city statues being draped with protective masks, as if to spare their poor bronze and marble lungs.

Tellingly, the Capital Region’s politicians are sympathetic, but have struggled for collective action. Smet, the mobility minister, actually applauded the doctors’ intervention, but in an urban region where much power remains vested in 19 municipalities, brokering collective action can be laborious. This is a city, after all, with six separate police forces, and where a parking permit can be valid for one side of the street straddling a municipal border, but not the other. The Capital Region also struggles with the limits of its remit. An officially bilingual territory squeezed between the French-speaking Wallonia Region and Dutch-speaking Flanders, its leaders have strongly criticized plans to expand the city’s beltway. Because the highway lies just outside the Capital Region in Flanders, however, those protests are so far failing to change the road plans.

The poor quality of Brussels’s air has another ironic twist to it. Across the E.U., it is the Brussels-located European Commission that is charged with reproving states who fail in their mutually agreed air quality targets. Just last month, environment ministers from nine E.U. states were summoned to Brussels to account for the insufficiency of their policies for combating air pollution. The European Commission itself is in no way directly responsible for managing Brussels’s air quality and transit, but it’s at least a little awkward to summon Europe’s environmental shirkers to a city that itself is often heavy-breathing under a pall of toxic filth.

Brussels’s new emergency measures won’t flush the Capital Region’s skies clean in a hurry. But at least they’re a sign of a genuine will to clear the air at Europe’s heart.

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Businesses Spurn the NRA. Where Are the Mayors?

Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart are the latest companies to take a hard turn on guns. Dick’s announced on Wednesday a host of new store policies following the discovery that the shooter in the Parkland massacre once purchased a shotgun at a Dick’s outlet. No longer will Dick’s sell assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines, and regardless of state law, no Dick’s will sell to anyone under 21. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, declared the same age limit.

The Dick’s statement went further, issuing a list of demands for the government, including a federal ban on assault-style rifles.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims and their loved ones,” reads the company’s forceful, even emotional memo. “But thoughts and prayers are not enough.”

A national debate about gun policy has turned into a consumer politics argument about the NRA itself. Major airlines, rental-car companies, retailers, insurers, and other firms have all ended their agreements with the NRA since the Parkland massacre.

Against a backdrop of escalating pronouncements on the NRA, some local leaders in a position to push back have stayed silent. One Dallas City Council member pleaded with the organization to reconsider hosting its convention in the city in May. While Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says that he shares those concerns, the contract is already signed. Like a lot of cities, Dallas pays the NRA hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure its annual convention (and thousands of members) to town.

But other cities that pay six-figure sums to the NRA have not followed suit. Leaders from the circuit of Bible Belt cities that frequently host the NRA are slow to jump into the public debate over the group. Two years ago, then–Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said that she would be glad to host the NRA again, like in 2010, when the city paid the NRA $150,000 in free rent at the convention center plus $15,000 in cash. (That was less memorable than in 2000, when Charlton Heston lifted a rifle over his head, telling NRA convention attendees in Charlotte that if Al Gore wanted his gun, he’d have to pry it from his “cold, dead hands.”) This week, Charlotte’s current mayor, Vi Lyles, declined to say whether the city should continue to offer its support to the NRA. (Charlotte just recently submitted a bid to host the 2020 Republican National Convention.)

Of the 17 cities that have hosted the NRA convention over the last 25 years, only one has said unequivocally that it would not support bringing the group back: Seattle. The only surprise here may be that Seattle ever held an NRA convention in the first place. It did, in 1997, likely for the last time. “The minute the NRA stands for responsible gun ownership and supports policies that will save lives in Seattle and every other city, then we might be willing to discuss,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told CityLab.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James echoed the sentiment. “If the NRA changes certain positions on common-sense gun-safety laws, he would entertain talking to the organization,” a spokesperson said.

An official at the mayor’s office in Phoenix, which hosted the NRA convention in 1995 and 2009, said that the city has no current plans to bring the convention back to town. But Phoenix City Council member Thelda Williams says that the city completed a $600 million expansion of the Phoenix Convention Center with an eye toward hosting large conventions like the NRA. “We would welcome a repeat visit,” she told CityLab in a statement.

Even in Orlando, where a man shot and killed 50 people (including himself) in 2016’s horrific Pulse nightclub shooting, leaders have not ruled out hosting the NRA convention again. A spokesperson for Mayor Buddy Dyer deferred, saying that Orlando’s convention Center belongs to Orange County, Florida. The county did not respond to an inquiry.

In fact, the Orange County Convention Center is probably too small to host an NRA convention today—not unless it completes the $500 million expansion under discussion. Charlotte may have neither the hotels nor convention space to suit an NRA meeting. St. Louis, where the group held its meeting in 2007 and 2012, is looking to build $120 million in convention center improvements, which would keep it in the elite class of metro areas eligible to bid hundreds of thousands of dollars on the NRA convention.

While Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts might like to bring the NRA convention to the Cornhusker State—and tweeted so on Friday—there’s no city in Nebraska large enough to host it. (An average NRA convention, with an attendance size of 70,000 members, would rank as Nebraska’s third-largest city.)

Leaders may not want to refuse to host the NRA’s annual meeting on speech grounds. This is contested legal territory: After Dallas banned a sex expo, Exxxotica, from renting its convention center in 2016, the porn convention sued the city. The case is now in appeals. There’s little doubt that the NRA would respond aggressively to a local effort to keep the NRA out, just as it has responded aggressively to local efforts to keep guns out.

However, direct consequences for leaders who shun the NRA may not be as painful as for some federal politicians. The NRA does not much bother funding state campaigns, and gave only $309,000 across about 500 contributions in 2016 and 2017 races, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The NRA’s only listed contributions in any local election went to Todd Spitzer, a California Republican who received $1,600 in his two races for Orange County supervisor. Of course, that’s not to discount the NRA’s massive influence in mobilizing voters through issue spending and member outreach. But how much worse a grade could a big-city Democrat earn on guns than an F?

As it stands, only a few cities are both large enough and southern enough to welcome 70,000 gun-owning NRA members to town. Among them are Dallas, Atlanta, Louisville, Nashville, Houston, and Phoenix, most of which are repeat hosts. Meanwhile, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum took on the NRA and won last year—and now he’s running to be Florida’s governor on a message of stricter gun control and local freedom from state preemption.

Gillum’s “common-sense” gun-safety proposals aren’t far off from the platform supported by Dick’s Sporting Goods. Pension funds are facing pressure to drop their investments in gun manufacturers, and while in the past, calls for divestment have never made a dent in gun company stocks, gun makers are more vulnerable to market shifts today than in the past, for reasons that have little to do with the shootings in Parkland, Orlando, and Las Vegas. Mounting public outrage that results in action from retailers can only expose gun manufacturer stocks to more losses.

“What do we want? Gun control!” Gillum shouted, leading a column of 1,000 students from Florida State University and others in a march from campus to the state capitol last week. Public opinion and corporate sympathies may be falling in behind him.

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Pick Up Trash While You Exercise. It’s Called Plogging.

Take a run in any city and you’re bound to find litter strewn along sidewalks, roadways, and trails. The average jogger may blow right past it. A plogger like Laura Lindberg, though, will make picking it up a crucial part of her daily workout routine.

“On any of my runs during the week, I’m out there with a pair of gloves and a plastic bag picking up garbage and recycling,” Lindberg said. The 36-year-old from Hoboken, New Jersey, is one of the latest runners across the globe to join the plogging movement, which essentially combines fitness with saving the Earth one piece of trash at a time.

The form of exercise is said to be an import from Sweden, where the term was first coined: “Plogging” comes from the Swedish phrase “plocka upp,” which means to pick up. And though it’s only March, it’s already been hailed as “the most 2018 fitness trend” in the U.S. and abroad—from Turkey to China to Australia. (To be fair, plogging has existed here and there around the U.S. under the label of “trash running,” but more on that later.)

Lindberg runs roughly four to five times a week along the Hoboken waterfront, logging between two and four miles each time. “I have yet to finish a run without a full bag of garbage,” she said. Food wrappers, Styrofoam, cigarette packs, and plastic bottles (“like an endless sea of water bottles,” she said) are seen spilling out of the grocery bags in Instagram photos of Lindberg’s hauls.

Sure #plogging sounds like another Millennial trend that’s cropped up as part of the urban fitness boom, which has been saturated with boutique studios, apps, and various “athleisure” wear. But if plogging proves to be more than just a fad—one that dissipates as fast as it grew in popularity—it’s a win-win for everyone.

Consider, first, the undeniable fact that American cities (as well as those across the world) have a litter problem, prompting nicknames like Philthadelphia and inventive campaigns like one in Boston, which made a game out of discarding cigarette butts. Cleanup can cost the U.S. $11.5 billion each year, according to the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful, which recently teamed up with the health tracking app Lifesum to encourage plogging in the U.S. Local governments pay $1.3 billion of that, and businesses end up footing the rest of the bill. And that’s still not enough to keep litter from seeping into waterways and natural landscapes—not to mention the other impacts, like rat infestation.

#Ploggingturkiye #plogging #izmir #turkiye

A post shared by PloggingTurkiye (@ploggingturkiye) on

At the same time, obesity is on the rise in the U.S. and elsewhere, especially among urban dwellers. And while there are various elements aside from exercise that factor into whether a city is adequately fostering a healthy environment, encouraging residents to move en masse is crucial as well.

The good news is that America has an army of runners, both those who are seriously competitive and those who prefer to go on the occasional jog. In fact, running has grown in popularity in recent years, if not by the increase in marathons, half-marathons, and other races, then by the number of formal and informal running clubs that exist. Plogging, too, can be as much an independent exercise as a community activity.

In fact, from 2009 to 2012, the running group DC Capital Striders, based in the greater Washington, D.C.,area, also hosted the DCCS Trash Runners. Organized by DCCS president Rick Amernick, the group held two to three trash runs each year, sometimes on running trails in the suburbs and in the nearby Rock Creek Park. Other times, they were in the heart of the city. Each run would result in five to six full trash bags.

The group is no longer active, but Amernick hasn’t forgotten why he started it in the first place. “I trail run often, and every one of my friends is very cognizant of making sure we leave the trails the way they were intended,” Amernick told CityLab in an email. “Without trash.”

And while it’s true that some, maybe even most, runners would prefer to focus on the actual running all the way through, Amernick said that if plogging can garner enough interest to reactivate the group, then he’s “all for it.”

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How Cities Are Fighting Secret Surveillance

A local government. A powerful private entity with controversial technology. A secret deal. This time, in New Orleans.

On Tuesday, The Verge ’s Russell Brandom revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has purchased access to an extensive national database of license plate reader information from a private company called Vigilant Solutions, which allows the agency to retrace the movement of a license plate for the last five years. ICE can also get alerts when a particular license plate pops up on the radar in real time. Vigilant collected this data, in part, by partnering with local law enforcement.

“Surveillance technology is a big business, and companies who build it have an interest in collecting data from one customer and making it available to their other customers,” Cagle said.“I think one of the key lessons here is that surveillance that happens locally doesn’t necessarily stay local.”

These technologies are multiplying, in part, through hush-hush agreements and lack of regulation at the local level. But cities are starting to catch up. In January, Culver City in California held a city council hearing to purchase an of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) system from Vigilant worth half a million dollars. Many residents were unhappy.

“This is a solution searching for a problem,” Local blogger Warren Szewczyk reported a military veteran saying at the meeting. “We don’t need to change our neighborhoods into war zones. “

In the end, the council declined to vote on the acquisitions, asking instead for a clear policy around the technologies before they vote on approving them.

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When Teens Protest, Race Matters

In the spring of 2016, African-American children as young as 11 marched in protest against the gun violence in their Miami neighborhood of Liberty City. The low-income area had lost 13 teens and children so far that year to guns. The kids demanded the right to play outside safely; they held signs and chanted slogans like “We want to live” and “We want to see another day.” Phillip Agnew, leader of the Florida-based Dream Defenders, a youth-led group fighting for racial justice, said the demonstration didn’t get much attention from the national media at the time.

Liberty City is about 40 miles from Parkland, Florida, site of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School two weeks ago. But it’s been hard not to notice the difference between how youth-led protests against gun violence in these two communities were received. Since the Parkland tragedy, the national news has been filled with the school’s student survivors, who rose up to protest school shootings and demand—in eloquent and defiant terms—tighter gun legislation. Across the country, teens have been walking out of class in solidarity, often standing together in silence for 17 minutes, one for each of Parkland’s victims. National walkouts are planned for March 14, the one-month anniversary of the shooting, and April 20, which will mark 19 years since the Columbine High School massacre.

Though some of the response to the young activists has been hostile—several Parkland students have received online death threats, and right-wing conspiracy theorists have accused them of being fake “crisis actors”—many other op-eds and think pieces have praised the student-led movement as a heroic moment of moral reckoning for a generation. Celebrities such as George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey have pledged to back the protesters, donating $500,000 each to help pay for the student-led March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24.

Students at an anti-gun protest in Missoula, Montana. (Winter Ramos/CityLab)

Many school districts have also been supportive of the student efforts: At Missoula, Montana’s Hellgate High School, for example, principal Judson Miller stopped short of openly endorsing a walkout on February 21 by hundreds of students, but told staffers to use the protest as a “teachable moment.” In Wake County, North Carolina, where several high schools have seen student walkouts, schools communications director Lisa Luten told CityLab, “We respect the students’ right to protest. Our priority is supporting them and making sure they are safe.”

And for those schools that are threatening to punish student protesters, lawyers such as Jay Urban of Milwaukee are offering their services pro bono. “Perhaps lawyers can be pressure on school districts to do the right thing,” he said. Colleges and universities have issued statements noting that punishment for participation in peaceful protests will not affect high schoolers’ chances of admission.

In contrast, teens and adults of color have often faced very different responses when protesting gun violence. Indeed, while youth of color have been confronting the issue for years, the protests and actions associated with the Movement for Black Lives have often been criminalized, greeted with police repression and public scorn, or simply ignored.

A police officer arrests a young man protesting the shooting death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

Florida Governor Rick Scott, for instance, snubbed calls from the Dream Defenders to hold a special session on the state’s “stand your ground” law in 2013. The law removes the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense, and figured in the trial of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted of gunning down 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. A group of Dream Defenders peacefully occupied the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee for 31 days to pressure the governor for the meeting, to no avail.

Parkland students, on the other hand, traveled to Tallahassee last week to meet with Florida lawmakers, including Governor Scott, and participate in a press conference at the capitol. They also interfaced with Florida Senator Marco Rubio and two Florida legislators in a town hall on CNN. Though the Florida legislature recently rejected a ban on assault rifles and advanced legislation on arming teachers, despite appeals from Parkland students, it also moved forward on imposing a three-day waiting period on gun purchases and raising the age to buy a gun from 18 to 21.

Many black scholars and activists are drawing attention to this stark contrast, while at the same time championing the Parkland students—and seeing the rise of their movement as an opportunity. Dream Defenders, for instance, has submitted a proposal to bring the young people from Liberty City and Parkland together at a town hall to talk about their trauma. Both communities have something to gain from collaboration. “The black teens haven’t been able to talk because there hasn’t been anyone to listen,” Agnew said. “And the students from Parkland haven’t been able to grieve because the public wants them to be spokespeople.”

As CityLab’s Brentin Mock reported back in 2015, this isn’t the first time that the “natural alliance” between largely white gun control groups and the Black Lives Matter activist community has been explored. For Agnew, the idea is both to create a larger and more formidable movement and to share with the Parkland teens and other young allies what youth of color have learned through their own activism.

“Dream Defenders trains young people to organize,” he said. “We want to show them how to do it bigger and more effectively.”

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The Educational Crisis Among the Children of Immigrants

At the Tolleson Elementary School District in Phoenix, Arizona, the school day begins with an expression of hope: After the pledge of allegiance, the kids recite the “

But maintaining that sense of optimism has been a challenge recently, says district superintendent Lupita Ley Hightower, because so many students are experiencing anxiety related to their immigration status. The student body in this district is 82 percent Latino. Administrators and teachers don’t ask about the legal situation of their parents or students, so they don’t know how many are undocumented. Attendance at activities like legal assistance forums for parents suggests that the numbers are significant. Some students have already had parents deported; others have seen friends and their families targeted with arrest and detainment. “When they feel this anxiety and stress about being deported, they feel hopeless and depressed,” Hightower says.

That anxiety is an ongoing reality in U.S. schools with a high immigrant population. It affects not only those who have undocumented parents, but their classmates. “They were their friends and now they’re gone, from one day to the next,” says Patricia Gándara, a UCLA researcher and co-director of the university’s Civil Rights Project. “And then the other students wonder if it can happen to them.”

Gándara co-authored a new report to study this problem and identify how the immigration policies of the Trump administration have affected students in the past year. Surveying 5,400 teachers and administrators in 730 schools across the United States, they found clear effects on students’ behavior and emotional well-being. Ninety percent of principals said they’d observed behavioral and emotional problems in their immigrant students; more than two-thirds also noted similar issues in students who are not directly targeted, like friends and colleagues. “It seems to affect everyone,” says Gándara.

This anxiety also manifested in students’ grades: 70 percent of respondents said that the academic results of immigrant students dropped this year, and 1 in 6 counselors said that this problem is extensive. Many respondents spoke of students who simply “gave up” on school after a parent was deported. Others were haunted by the prospect of losing one or both parents: A fourth-grade teacher in the Northeast described to researchers how one student “told me that her mom is teaching her how to make food and feed her baby sister, in case the mom is taken away.”

Absenteeism was another issue, noted by 68 percent of administrative staff in all regions. “I have heard students say that they do not want to come to school, in case their parents are deported,” said a teacher from Texas. Parent involvement suffered accordingly: Not only has the threat of deportation and raids kept parents from going to school events, they have also caused others to lose jobs, impacting the time they have to accompany their children.

For teachers, this made their jobs even more challenging; many of the most heavily impacted schools are located in low-income communities, and resources to deal with the crisis are scarce. “They tell us that they are very stressed,” says Gándara. “They know [their students] very well. When they have children so young crying, it affects them, too.” To address the problem, teachers are asking for more forums with the school community to better explain immigrant rights—and more legal counseling. “There is no school that wants to cooperate with ICE. They want to teach,” she says. “But many parents aren’t trusting.”

Some districts are making efforts to stress that message. In Oakland, California, for example, district superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell recently outlined protocols designed to protect students from immigration enforcement at school. “We want to remind everyone that Oakland Unified School District is a Sanctuary District inside a Sanctuary City located in California, a Sanctuary State,” she said in a message sent to students, family and staff. “That means your state, city and school district support you no matter where you came from or how you got here.”

Despite such supportive efforts, Gándara fears that the negative effects of the current crackdown on immigration status could linger for decades.

“Many first-generation immigrants are the best students. The teachers tell us that,” she says. “They’re the most devoted to their studies and most ambitious. We are going to suffer because of this, and in the long term it will affect us immensely.”

This story originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

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MapLab: Snap by Snap, the Teen-Led Fight For Gun Reform

Welcome to the eighth edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox and ) of Snapchat’s Snap Map feature, which plotted user photos and videos of gun reform demonstrations at high schools, middle schools, and college campuses around the country last week. Snap Map has “proven to be a valuable, honest, and raw lens into modern life, where tragedies like school shootings … have been documented in real time by regular people as the events unfold,” my Quartz colleague Mike Murphy wrote. Long live the Snap.

Mappy links

A map of projected urban growth for Lagos, Nigeria, showing in red where the edges of the city overlap with biodiverse areas. (Atlas for the End of the World)

Drones for good: a “quadcopter” will chart radioactive contamination at Fukushima. ♦ Bright lights, divided cities: striking maps of neighborhood income disparities. ♦ Controversial model: a researcher believes predictive mapping could help prevent violence against civilians in Syria. ♦ Don’t ask: an ex-director of the U.S. Census Bureau warns gravely against adding a question about citizenship. ♦ Shitty news: a playful “poop map” of San Francisco has become a micro-flashpoint in partisan politics. ♦ Something’s off: the FCC’s new broadband map doesn’t match reality. ♦ Conflict zones: a new atlas shows where urban sprawl threatens biodiversity. (One map is shown above.) ♦ Digital archaeology: Lidar technology reveals a “lost” Aztec city with as many buildings as Manhattan.

Life is hard, but maps spark joy. Tell your friends to sign up for MapLab here.

By the way, what do you think of this newsletter? My inbox is open.



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The Problem With America’s New National Broadband Map

Before last week, the official U.S. map of broadband access had accumulated a fair amount of dust. On February 23, though, the Federal Communications Commission’s cartography of connectivity got a long-awaited upgrade. But while the new broadband map is easier to click around, it still isn’t a reliable tool to gauge what internet options are available to homes or communities around the country.

Just ask one of the FCC’s commissioners what’s wrong with it.

“I looked up my house and can tell you with good authority it lists service that is not available at my location,” Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in a dissenting statement. She invited people to e-mail error reports to an inbox she had set up:

Christian Moe, an automotive journalist living outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, struggled to get broadband at a home that was advertised as having it. He offered a similar critique in an e-mail.

“The map at my section of the world is hilarious,” he wrote. The map listed AT&T’s top download speed at his address as 75 megabits per second—about six times faster than the best service he could actually get, 12 Mbps.

The map’s biggest downfall lurks behind its search-by-address function, which suggests a precision that its underlying data usually can’t deliver. The FCC data doesn’t get more granular than census blocks—statistical areas that can span a city block or several counties. Within census blocks, internet access can vary quite a bit. Just because your closest neighbors have broadband doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have any.

An FCC spokesman said the agency is considering asking for more detailed coverage data from providers, but warned that this could be “burdensome.”

The map also doesn’t cite prices. The FCC doesn’t collect that information, much less factor in complications like the discounts that cable firms offer for bundling TV, phone, and internet service.

To make things more confusing, the broadband map identifies internet providers by their holding companies, not necessarily the names you’d recognize on a bill. At CityLab’s D.C. office, for example, the map lists one provider as “Radiate Holdings, L.P.” You’ll have to consult a separate FCC table to find out that this firm owns cable provider RCN.

Finally, the newest internet providers don’t appear on the map at all. For example, checking a Cambridge, Massachusetts, ZIP code doesn’t list Starry, a promising residential-wireless startup.

The map’s raw material is a document called Form 477. The FCC requires internet providers to submit the forms twice a year, reporting the top advertised download and upload speeds across each census block in which they sell access.

That filing schedule explains Starry’s absence: Spokeswoman Virginia Lam said the Boston firm was still in a closed beta test at the end of 2016, meaning it didn’t have to file the forms that fed the new broadband map. Future updates should include that firm.

The private sector has only filled in some of the information gaps. A site called BroadbandNow takes the FCC’s data, corrects errors that it finds, and adds pricing data that it gleans from various sources. (Scraping rates off providers’ sites with automated software would be faster, but also lawsuit bait). BroadbandNow collects referral fees from some providers.

“We have a data team that works on this—we’re in there every day, manually reviewing ISP sites, testing addresses, on the phone with reps, coordinating with marketing and technical teams at various ISPs,” e-mailed marketing head Jameson Zimmer.

But BroadbandNow only lets you search by ZIP code (Zimmer said they’re working to add address-level queries) and remains subject to the limits of the underlying FCC data (it doesn’t list Starry either).

BroadbandNow’s price data can also miss smaller, more interesting options. In the Sonoma County town of Sebastopol, for instance, it omits rates for the gigabit fiber service that the Santa Rosa, California, firm Sonic has offered since 2011.

“I’ve seen their site, but they’ve never reached out to me for any pricing,” Sonic CEO Dane Jasper wrote. “It’s certainly possible they’ve tried to reach someone else here via support or sales e-mail addresses and that never got routed to my attention, though.”

It’s also easy to find private-sector maps of mobile broadband coverage—see, for instance, the data produced by firms like RootMetrics. But while a car stuffed with instrumentation can drive around and measure bandwidth waiting in the air, there’s no similar way to find out how much bandwidth reaches homes by wires.

Meanwhile, most local broadband markets don’t have a lot of competition, consisting of just a phone company and a cable company. Dave Burstein, a longtime telecom consultant and editor of Fast Net News, said those conditions leave fewer reasons for incumbent providers to reward ISP-finder sites with commissions. (The new broadband-map site, built for the FCC by Mapbox, makes it easy to visualize this lack of competition across counties, congressional districts, and states.)

So if you want to know all the broadband options available at your home, you’ll have to do things the hard way: Consult both the FCC and BroadbandNow, then plug your address into the site of every provider listed as offering respectable speeds.

If that seems aggravating after the third time, take a moment to pat yourself on the back: Your home has more broadband options than most American abodes.

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HQ2 Cities: There’s a Better Way to Do Economic Development

The allure is undeniable: A mega-corporation moves to town, bringing with it billions in capital investment and tens of thousands of jobs. Little wonder that the ongoing sweepstakes to win Amazon’s second headquarters has inspired city and state officials to offer record-breaking economic incentive packages in the hopes of attracting the online giant. Chicago has offered $2 billion in tax breaks, including a tax diversion program which would redirect up to 100 percent of potential Amazon employees’ income taxes back to the company. Newark, New Jersey—which has an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent—is offering up an eye-popping $7 billion in state and local tax incentives. Metro-Atlanta offered to form a brand-new city (named Amazon, of course) and proposed legislation that would make Jeff Bezos mayor for life, in addition to the $1 billion in incentives they are pledging to the company.

In return, Amazon promises enormous economic growth to the city that hosts its HQ2. The company’s analysts say HQ2 will bring with it $5 billion in local investment and 50,000 new jobs.

But there is little evidence that such subsidies bring sustainable economic benefit to cities. Research suggests that firms receiving incentives are statistically no more likely to generate new jobs than similar firms that don’t. Perhaps another high-profile megadeal provides some insight into what the winning HQ2 community can expect for their investment: In Wisconsin last year, lawmakers agreed to a $3 billion tax incentive package for technology manufacturer Foxconn—despite the fact that the state’s nonpartisan budget office concluded that the state won’t break even on the deal until at least 2043. That should give policymakers and voters pause.

Public funds generate far better—and more immediate—returns when they are prioritized for smaller, Main Street-scale economic development efforts. The most cost-effective and promising path for bettering the lives of city residents begins at home, via encouraging growth from within the city by building local capacity, leveraging existing assets, and creating quality places that can attract entrepreneurs and investors. That’s the premise behind Main Street America, a national network of organizations and individuals working to revitalize local economies. Since 2013, I’ve been the president and CEO of the National Main Street Center, which runs the Main Street America program.

In the nearly 40 years since Main Street America began, modest investments by cities and states in support of locally driven economic development have driven impressive returns. With relatively small budgets and large teams of volunteers, Main Street America programs help to transform their communities in myriad ways, from public art projects in Portland, Oregon, to community health initiatives in Arkansas to business retention support programs in Emporia, Kansas. Taken together, these kinds of projects contribute to enhancing the overall quality of life in a community, making it a more attractive place for potential investors, and a more inviting place for residents and shoppers. In 2016 alone, the 1,000 communities participating in the Main Street America network collectively invested $745 million in public resources to leverage more than $4 billion in private investment. Put another way, for every public dollar invested, the private sector matched that and added another three dollars.

One recent example of how the program can trigger big payoffs: Between 2015 and 2016, the city of Boston invested $1.8 million in 20 “Main Street” commercial districts throughout the city. The program helped preserve the historic facades of storefronts, provided direct technical assistance to small businesses, and helped support women entrepreneurs launch and grow startups. These efforts generated nearly $7.3 million more city tax revenue than would have been expected without the presence of a sustained neighborhood development program, amounting to a $5.5 million net fiscal gain for the city. And the benefits didn’t just flow to the city’s coffers: nearly 100 new businesses and 500 new jobs were created.

Beyond this program, other cities are also seeing powerful results from a focus on growing jobs from within. In Nashville, Tennessee, the city used federal “Promise Zone” funding to strategically invest in entrepreneurs, makers, and small-scale manufacturers. The program directly supports local business owners in commercial districts by helping them secure space to launch businesses, providing funding to help them grow, and building capacity to ensure they thrive. This kind of localized economic activity creates four times as many stable jobs as large industry does in the city.

Smaller cities have been able to see similar results: Littleton, Colorado, population 42,000, is a pioneer in an economic development concept known as “economic gardening.” The town began this experiment in the late 1980s, when missile manufacturer Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) dramatically cut its footprint in town, resulting in the loss of 7,500 jobs and over 1 million square feet of vacant commercial real estate. Instead of attempting to lure in new corporations with incentives or tax rebates, the city focused on helping existing businesses grow by identifying new markets, mapping geographic areas for qualified sales leads, and raising visibility through search engine optimization and sophisticated digital marketing. In the three decades since, Littleton has gained 15,000 jobs and sales tax revenue more than tripled from $6 million to $21 million—all without recruiting, incentives, or tax rebates.

So, here’s a thought for the 19 mayors who are fated to “lose” out on HQ2, and the approximately 218 mayors who already have: Take just 10 percent of what you were going to hand over to Amazon—a company that may be on track to be a $1 trillion business—and invest it in local place-based economic development. Focus on creating neighborhoods that are attractive to innovators and entrepreneurs—neighborhoods that have a distinct sense of place, dense mixed-income housing, cultural offerings, and accessible transit. Systematically identify and cultivate existing businesses that are ready to grow by connecting them to technical and financial resources that help them scale. Finally, actively seek out the would-be entrepreneurs in your midst, and help smooth their path by offering training, low interest loans, and small grants.

Then sit back and watch the dividends accumulate. And maybe take a small bit of pleasure in seeing the housing affordability, traffic, and budget crisis you avoided when your city failed to “win” HQ2. You may find that your city wasn’t the loser after all.

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CityLab Daily: HUD Sets the Table

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What We’re Following

For the love of HUD, show us the table: As the Department of Housing and Urban Development awaits deep budget cuts, The New York Times reports that the agency spent $31,000 on a new dining room set in late 2017 for Secretary Ben Carson’s office. The custom hardwood table, chairs, and hutch—made in Carson’s hometown of Baltimore—sure sound cozy, but we’re still wondering, where are the pictures? (Here’s a look at what it’s replacing, per TPM)

Of course, that’s a little beside the point, given that federal law requires congressional approval for any spending over $5,000 on redecorating department head offices. (HUD now says the dining set was “a building expense.”) The Guardian obtained a copy of the complaint filed with a federal whistleblower agency, in which a senior career official at HUD claims she was demoted and replaced for refusing to break the law to fund the redecoration, and faced retaliation for exposing a $10 million budget shortfall.

CityLab context: For 2019, the White House proposes some harsh spending cuts for HUD’s public housing programs.

Andrew Small

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